In 1911 when Delhi became the new capital of British India, tonga (which was pulled by mule), ekka, bullock carts, phetun (kind of tonga run by four or five horses) and electricity-powered trams were the popular modes of public transportation in the city. A hundred years later, in 2011, Delhi Metro, radio cabs, air-conditioned DTC buses, auto rickshaws are the modes of commuting in the city.
“During the starting years of 20th century, trams used to run in the Walled city, while women in purdah would travel in ekka. It was the rich who used phetun with a coachman for commuting,” says author R.V. Smith who has written many books on Delhi. “Since the population was less, there wasn’t much crowd in public modes of transport. Still trams would get crowded on Fridays when people would go for namaaz or on holidays such as Sunday.” Then most school students used to travel in bullock carts to school whereas girl students travelled on thelas, the wooden carts that move on wheels. Now, school students travel in buses that are exclusively used for taking students to school. Some elite schools employ air-conditioned buses.
“Nowadays you see many Delhi-ites driving their own cars,” says Smith. “Earlier, only few people such as Lala Chunnamal could afford a motor car. The public too never misbehaved while using public transportation.”
Population of Delhi has increased over the past 100 years. From 400,000 in 1901, the city’s population crossed 18 million in 2010. The net result: buses and metros are always crowded. “There was hardly any crowd in the buses even in the 1960s. Hardly anybody was seen standing. Now the population burst has obviously made it very crowded,” says Smith.
It was in 1948 that the Ministry of Transport took over the local bus services of Delhi and named it Delhi Transport Service. Before, Gwalior Transport Service and Northern India Transport Company were running buses in the city.
2010 also saw a significant closure in the city’s commuting scene. Tongas, which were running in selected areas of the Walled City, were pulled off. Old Delhi is not left poorer. It boasts of Delhi’s deepest metro station in Chawri Bazaar.
Commuting down the years
Once Delhi’s diplomatic avenues had Hindustan Fourteen, Landmaster and Hillman running on them. They gave way to Standard Heralds, Fiats, Ambassadors, and then to Marutis, Toyotas, Landcruisers and BMWs.
Once, no bus was allowed to carry more than its capacity of seated people and - at the most, 12 standing passengers. Author Nirad C Chaudhuri walked from his office at All India Radio to his home in Mori Gate rather than wait for a bus that would take no new passengers since it was already ‘full’. Now, DTC buses are crowded like chicken coops with people hanging out from the doors.